Jokingly remarking to his son a few years ago that dad was a loser did not sit well with the young boy. Marcus Ottey immediately pointed to the plaque on the wall in their home, reminding eight-time national high jump champion, Milt Ottey, that losers don’t go to the Hall of Fame.
Four years ago, Ottey was a member of the 1982 University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) men’s track and field championship team that was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame. He’s one of five athletes who will enter Athletics Canada Hall of Fame in Calgary next month.
“I reminded my son the other day that I am going to a second Hall because he’s the Ottey that’s getting most of the attention now,” dad proudly remarked. “I just wanted him to know that I am still around even though he’s riding high now.”
The Grade Nine J. Clarke Richardson Collegiate student is jumping high on the basketball court. He’s one of the top high school basketball players in Durham region and some of his jaw-dropping dunks are highlight reel.
Ottey, who came to Canada from Jamaica at age 10 in 1969, was the top Canadian high jumper in the 1980s. A finalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the World Championships the following year in Indianapolis, Ottey retired with a personal best of 2.33 metres. The 1979 Pan American Games gold medal winner and triple Commonwealth Games medallist emerged as a star the same year he entered university three decades ago when he won the gold medal at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
“1982 was a banner year for me and by far the most productive and enjoyable of my track and field career,” noted Ottey who won 28 of 29 events that season. “The Commonwealth Games was the last meet of an exhausting season and I was very tired. Stephen Wray came to the Games at 2.22 while I was at 2.33. I missed my first two jumps and when the bar was raised to 2.31 which was my best that year, I was in second place. I however cleared that height on my first jump while Stephen made it on his last attempt after failing his first two tries.”
Silver medallist Wray went missing on a fishing trip in his native Bahamas in December 2009. His boat was found overturned but his body was never recovered.
The 1982 Commonwealth Games marked the emergence of a new breed of Caribbean-born athletes who have left an indelible mark in the sport in Canada. In addition to Ottey and Guyanese-born Mark McKoy who set Games’ records, sprinters Angela Taylor-Issajenko, Tony Sharpe and Ben Johnson who migrated from Jamaica and Kittitian-born Desai Williams also medalled at the Games.
They were the first recipients of the prestigious Harry Jerome Awards that celebrate excellence in Canada’s Black community. Jerome, who set seven world track records and helped create the framework for Canada’s sports ministry, is also being inducted posthumously next month into Athletics Canada Hall of Fame.
“How fitting it is that we are going in at the same time with Harry Jerome?” remarked Ottey who is the cousin of Jamaican-born and Slovenia-based Merlene Ottey who holds the record for the most Olympic appearances at seven. “It was a big deal when the Black community honoured us with awards in his name and I was delighted to be invited to the 25th anniversary of the awards. We thought that we were forgotten. We had a real good time five years ago.”
Ottey is also ecstatic to be entering the national track and field Hall of Fame with two-time World Indoor Championship gold medallist, Bruny Surin, and five-time Olympian, Charmaine Crooks.
“I really got to know Charmaine when we arrived at UTEP in 1981,” Ottey, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Education, recalled. “We travelled on the same flight to Texas and we did not know that we were going to the same school until the plane landed and we spoke. We have always been in touch since. Charmaine learned German years ago and I remember asking her why she was doing it. When we got to Europe, I was relying on her to translate for me. She has so much foresight and vision and I am really proud of her and what she has achieved.
“As for Bruny, he’s a wonderful individual. He has always treated me with respect. He has had a fantastic career and is deserving of the honour.”
The high jump bar was not the only obstacle Ottey had to clear. He was placed in a vocational school after arriving in Canada and he graduated from Timothy Eaton Business & Technical Institute which was closed three years ago.
“I was pushed back a Grade when I came here and it just seemed that decisions were made that confined me to a certain pre-designated category,” he said. “The stigma stayed with me for years and I remember struggling to read when I was 13 years old. It was a challenge growing up, but I survived.”
Ottey, who started jumping at Dallington Public School, was a member of the former Scarborough Optimists club that attracted the cream of the athletes in the Greater Toronto Area. He paid sterling tribute to former members Leighton Hope and Bryan Saunders for his success.
Jamaican-born Hope, and Saunders, who migrated from Trinidad & Tobago, were members of Canada’s 4 x 400-metre relay team at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
“Those guys took me under their wings and mentored me,” said Ottey who was an assistant track and field coach at UTEP, the University of New Mexico and Kent State. “I looked up to them and they taught me a lot about this sport.”
Ottey also holds late athletics coach Charlie Francis in high esteem. The ex-Canadian sprint champion and coach died two years ago.
“Charlie was a great coach,” he said. “When I started coaching in the United States, I called him for advice. When I was jumping and I had to do sprint workouts, Charlie would be there with me. I learned a great deal from him. He was one of the sport’s most knowledgeable coaches.”
Now in his fifth year with the York University track and field team, Ottey was recently recruited by Athletics Canada as part of a team that will oversee its long-term athlete development program.
“There are many talented athletes in Canada, but the infrastructure here is poor,” he said. “Just imagine, we have just one real indoor facility (York University) in southern Ontario. When you look at Europe, every town has a rubberized track with all the amenities. We have a far way to go here.”
In addition to coaching at York and supervising Grenadian-born, Canadian-based long and triple jumper and Olympic aspirant Patricia Sylvester’s workout program, Ottey is the development manager for International Fun & Team Athletics which is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing children’s sports educational services.
By RON FANFAIR